Process Application Platforms 2017: Appian

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This report assesses the capabilities of Appian’s Process Application Platform, and also examines the partners and intellectual property that Appian can offer customers exploring associated technology implementations. This assessment report forms part of a series of reports from MWD Advisors which assesses business process application technology offerings – technology-related capabilities which support organisations wanting to design, develop, deploy, monitor and optimise partially- or wholly-automated business processes.
We strongly encourage you to read this report in conjunction with our accompanying Assessment Framework report.

Summary

Appian continues to innovate with its Appian Platform. The Appian Platform has always been about much more than delivering core process application functionality; recent enrichment of Records and associated reporting functionality that bring business data into the platform as a first-class concern further cement its position. Appian’s ambition is to deliver a platform for (in its words) agile digital business transformation; to this end, recent releases have seen increased focus on making the platform ‘play more nicely’ with modern application development and management toolchains and practices. New partnerships with Blue Prism (RPA), Mulesoft (integration and API management) and Microsoft (Azure deployment certification), together with improved decision management and integration design capabilities, round out the picture.

Support for different types of work

Automated work: All the key capabilities required to support automated work scenarios well are provided by the Appian platform. The ability to chain tasks is particularly helpful in certain situations, and the breadth of integration options on hand (including the ability to leverage Robotic Process Automation) is also good.

Transactional work: The ability to define and take advantage of sophisticated organisational models is at the heart of Appian’s strong support for transactional work scenarios. An innovative approach to specifying dynamic user interfaces that ensures cross-platform compatibility is another really strong point.

Exploratory work: With its Records and collaboration functionality Appian has all the foundational capabilities needed for supporting exploratory work scenarios in its platform. A Case Management Framework available through the App Market further improves the offering here.

Rapid prototyping / quick-start

Appian’s Quick Apps facility enables relatively non-technical people create relatively simple Records- and collaboration-based applications very quickly indeed. The output from Quick Apps is standard Appian models and objects, so your work can be further refined using the standard Appian tools.

Change management

The Appian Platform helps you deliver change quickly, with control. All design artefacts are managed under version control provided within the Appian environment, which enables facilities like rich change impact analysis. In operation, there’s real flexibility and control in how process revisions are managed and deployed, and a common repository is a key element supporting operational change management. There’s direct support for large multi-project programs too, and support for automated testing is a key strength.

User experience options

Appian has focused significant development effort on increasing choice for customers in how they deliver user experiences for Appian applications; there are now two options (server APIs and Embedded SAIL) for those wanting to build their own interfaces, as well as high-productivity, cross-platform options (Tempo and Sites) for those happy to use Appian’s own UI frameworks.

Deployment options

There’s no doubt that for Appian, its cloud platform is the strategic focus. It makes significant ongoing investment in maintaining security and regulatory compliance certifications and now has much experience in running a true cloud service. Appian still offers on-premise licensing, but promotes this less and less.

Inside Appian’s platform

Appian’s offering provides a functionally broad, well-integrated suite going well beyond the typical capabilities provided in support of BPM projects, together with the ability to complement its products with short-term implementation assistance to customers and partners. At the time of publication the Appian platform is on version 17.4 (Appian names its releases after calendar years and quarters).

Appian was the first Process Application Platform provider to make a deep commitment to the delivery of cloud services, launching in 2007. The company delivers complete functional parity between cloud-based and on-premise licensing variants, with all tools browser-based; a significant majority of Appian’s new customers choose to use the Appian platform in the cloud.

The public Appian App Market, launched in October 2015, is designed to complement Appian deployments in the cloud. Customers using Appian can easily search for, select, download and deploy Appian or partner-built application components and can discover application frameworks offered by Appian partners.

Key tools and capabilities

The main elements of the Appian Platform are as follows:

  • Process Modeler. The main design environment within Appian’s offering, which you use to specify process models, organisational models, events, rules, data integrations and other process application artefacts and package them into process applications.
  • Application Designer. A tool that helps designers quickly assemble and package Appian process applications from Appian’s repository, with traceability of component and application change dependencies. The Application Designer also handles the migration of applications from one environment to another via an Import/Export utility.
  • SAIL Interface Designer. A drag-and-drop design tool for creating and optimising responsive, cross-platform, highly dynamic user interfaces using Appian’s SAIL technology (which ensures cross-platform and form factor consistency with HTML-based interfaces).
  • Decision Designer. A graphical design tool for specifying decisions (groups of business rules) using DMN-compliant decision tables. Decisions can be called from any expression, so can be used anywhere in an application.
  • Integration Designer. A simple wizard-based design tool for specifying the details of integration with external REST-based services.
  • RPA with Blue Prism. A partnership with Blue Prism inked in 2017 means Appian can now offer server-based/unattended RPA functionality integrated with the Appian Platform.
  • Records and Reporting. A structured data management layer, with associated tools, that enables applications to read, write, manage and report on enterprise data from multiple disparate sources.
  • BAM. A process monitoring console that allows users and administrators to track low-level performance of activities, and view process status and performance at the level of individual process instances.
  • Process Analytics. A separate analytics engine that aggregates performance information across process instances and presents performance trending information that can be summarised according to processes, users, groups, and so on.
  • Document Manager. A secure, web-based document repository with good search, classification and management facilities. Appian Document Manager is a full document management environment, with documents being able to be managed either outside or inside of Appian processes.
  • Social Collaboration. Appian’s Tempo social interface extends process visibility and combines real-time collaboration, filtered views of key business events and reports, and tasks and actions into a single interface. Comments, questions, status updates and ‘kudos’ can be shared securely with role-based permissions.
  • App Market. A growing marketplace offering a range of prebuilt scenario- and industry-focused components and frameworks, including a Case Management application framework and an AI Machine Learning plugin.

User experience options

The set of features that maximises the scope and scale of involvement in process applications are one of Appian’s strongest points. Appian now offers five main options for you to employ:

  • Tempo, a web-based social interface that’s organised around the now-familiar ‘activity stream’ concept. Tempo integrates events from Appian applications, dashboards and external applications together with conversations between work participants – and also weaves in actionable alerts for targeted individuals who need to perform tasks.
  • Sites, a responsive HTML5-based UI framework for presenting custom role-based web user experiences for Appian applications.
  • Embedded SAIL, which makes it straightforward to embed Appian forms and other UI elements in externally developed or third-party web-based user experiences.
  • Native apps for iOS and Android devices.
  • REST-based web APIs, that enable application designers to create custom APIs that external applications and user experiences can call to get and set data relating to business process, rule and report execution, and read and write Records data.

Deployment options

Appian has offered a hosted version of its platform since 2007, and for the last few years its cloud platform has led the way in popularity. In 2016 the vast majority of new licenses for Appian are for the cloud version of the platform. Today Appian licenses for both cloud-based and on-premises deployment in exactly the same fashion – via term licensing, based on per-user-per-month pricing.

Appian’s cloud platform is hosted on the AWS cloud, and it’s currently available in multiple US-based AWS regions (including the special ‘GovCloud’ region) as well as AWS regions in Ireland, Singapore, Germany, Australia and Brazil. The company has led the way in terms of cloud security and regulatory compliance work: the Appian cloud platform is certified against FedRAMP 2.0, SOC 1, 2 & 3, PCI-DSS, HIPAA, DISA Level 2, FISMA, ITAR, GxP, 21 CFR Part 11, VPAT Section 508 and CSA STAR. You can see more at Appian’s Cloud Trust Center at http://www.appian.com/appian-cloud-trust-center/.

Recently, Appian has achieved Azure Deployment Certification for the Appian Platform. This means that you now have the option, if you want, of deploying Appian on the Azure cloud, although currently Appian doesn’t offer a fully managed service here (as it does on AWS).

For on-premises deployment, Appian can run on Linux and Windows operating systems.

Using the products: core capabilities

Rapid prototyping / quick-start

Appian’s Quick Apps is a new capability, released in 2016, that enables relatively non-technical people to rapidly create new applications. Quick Apps’ design philosophy is ‘Records-first’; that is, it drives you to start by defining one or more Record types and their associated fields, and then allows you to quickly create first-cut UIs (in both Tempo and Sites) for creating, deleting and updating Records and producing related reports. It’s aimed primarily at teams wanting to carry out rapid prototyping exercises.

Importantly, the output of a Quick Apps session is standard Appian models, forms, records and rules specifications – so teams can take output from Quick Apps, and refine and extend that using the regular Appian design tools and standard approaches.

Mapping, modeling and application design

In your work mapping, modeling and designing process applications you’ll use a set of tightly integrated capabilities in the Appian Designer.

Processes

In the Process Designer you can define processes using the standard BPMN 2.0 constructs (swimlanes, activities, gateways, timers, events, exceptions, and so on) – including ad-hoc activities (which can be executed at any time, not necessarily in the context of running process instances). You can also enlist the broad range of capabilities from the rest of the Appian Platform (including Document Manager, Collaborative Tools, Appian’s user and organisational model management functionality, Process Manager, and Process Analytics) visually within process models, through the use of ‘smart services’.

When it comes to defining KPIs and thresholds for processes, you use the BAM environment’s tools to specify ‘indicators’. These can be specified based on any numeric data collected in the execution of a process instance – it could be a process metric (eg elapsed time) or it could be a task metric, or it could be a process variable. You can assign traffic light thresholds for all indicators according to your own needs.

Rules

The new Decision Designer brings a targeted business rule definition tool to the Appian Platform. It implements DMN-compliant decision table logic, and makes it easy to define, validate, test and version Decision definitions.

You also have the ability to define and reuse expressions, written in Appian Expression Language, that you package and store in Appian’s rules repository. The expression editor allows expressions to reference not only process variables, but also much environmental information and configuration metadata. Appian expressions can reference Decisions, which means that Decisions you implement with DMN decision tables can be used throughout your applications – you’re not limited to using them to specify process model branching behaviours.

An AI Machine Learning plugin, available free through the App Market, provides a simple wizard-based AI Designer that helps you connect your Appian Platform instance to AWS’ Machine Learning services. Once configured, the plugin creates a set of Smart Services that enable you to create, manage and run prediction models from within your Appian applications – leveraging prediction results from within Appian expressions and rules.

Integration

Appian provides a number of routes you can take to integrate external data sources or systems with your process applications.

Firstly, Appian ships a set of six connectors ships along with the core platform at no extra charge: providing a lot of assistance to developers wanting to integrate Appian applications with Salesforce.com, SAP, Microsoft SharePoint, Oracle Siebel, Microsoft Dynamics and CMIS-compliant content management systems. These connectors don’t just provide simple API connectivity; they abstract away from low-level interactions commonly required to do things like set up access sessions, determine API endpoints, and so on. They also integrate with Appian’s secure credential store, enabling connectors to use stored user credentials to log on to third-party systems.

Secondly, there’s a new Integration object type in Appian – defined using the wizard-based Integration Designer – that you’ll use when integrating with an external system via a REST API. Here, there’s built-in support for both HTTP basic authentication and OAuth 2.0. You can easily define URL parameters, content type and so on; and the Integrations you create can also automatically convert any JSON-based service responses to native Appian data values. Integrations you create in this way can be referenced in process models via a Smart Service, or referenced in any Appian expression.

Thirdly, if you license Appian RPA with Blue Prism, you can use the graphical Windows-based Studio tool to specify automated task flows that are deployed to groups of software robots. When invoked via work queues, the robots use these definitions to drive legacy applications’ user interfaces and perform scripted activities and calculations – and groups of robots can be configured to scale up and down to meet demand. This means that with Appian RPA with Blue Prism, you can create a layer of integration services that will automate interactions and data transfers with legacy systems in a non-invasive way. You can then easily define interactions with Blue Prism robots from your processes from the Appian Process Modeler.

Last, there are specialised Smart Services available for connecting to SOAP/WSDL-based web services. Finally, you can build your own custom smart services if you need to expand on the preconfigured integration capabilities delivered out-of-the-box.

Work assignment and distribution

There’s a very strong set of identity, role and organisational modeling concepts supported in the Appian platform. Typically customers import basic organisational details from an external directory, and then augment that information with custom-defined metadata. You can define teams and leaders within teams, as well as individuals and groups. Your organisational model is referenceable from any rule or script you write, so you can use it to define not only how work is assigned and distributed but also how it might be reassigned or escalated. You can also define multiple calendars, and assign different roles, tasks and participants with different calendars for the purposes of defining timer and event behaviour.

User interfaces

You use the Interface Designer to specify your application’s user interactions, which offers a drag-and-drop design experience to create responsive HTML5/Javascript user interfaces. Any interface you specify using the Interface Designer (using SAIL code under the covers) is automatically compatible with Tempo, Appian Sites, and the Embedded SAIL option.

A new capability in the Appian Platform now provides automatic parallelisation of SAIL execution. This is particularly impactful in situations where scripts need to execute multiple database queries or object searches via references to Records in your application design; the platform parses your scripts to identify opportunities to run segments asynchronously and in parallel – potentially delivering dramatic user experience performance improvements.

Operation and execution

Appian’s runtime platform revolves around two engines; one for executing processes and another for executing rules. Both are Java server applications utilising the OSGi standard, which means that their constituent parts (as well as application components) can be straightforwardly deployed, upgraded in place while servers are running.

There’s a process debugger available in Appian’s toolset, and in addition the Process Modeler makes it easy to validate process models and rules prior to deployment. Deploying a new process version is as simple as saving it to the application database, then publishing it to a server. Process engine instances can be replicated, and configured to distribute processing load between them. Appian has recently added improved support for automated testing frameworks within the design environment; there’s some functionality already in the platform, and more is planned for release over the coming months. There’s also a user interface performance testing tool built-in. Within the design environment, at any time you can see how the interface you’ve specified will perform in an operational environment – how long the interface will take to render, and the contributions that different interface elements make towards the overall rendering time. You can use this information to dig into potential performance problems and optimise your designs.

Appian delivers complete fidelity of capabilities regardless of whether you work in the cloud or on-premise; that means that you can design and develop on Appian’s cloud platform but deploy on-premise, or vice versa. Customers can isolate user visibility within a single instance to support multi-tenancy for process applications. For large enterprise customers this provides flexibility wanting to isolate applications and their users completely from each other; and it’s also attractive for third parties licensing Appian’s service and delivering it under the covers to power their own SaaS offerings.

Monitoring and improvement

Responsibility for monitoring and managing operational process instances is shared between the Process Manager and the Process Analytics tool. These enable administrators to quickly gain an overview of process health and performance, perform housekeeping and remediation actions, and analyse and report on business and process activity at a more detailed level. All the output from the Process Analytics and Process Manager capabilities is ‘active’ – that is, the output isn’t static and fixed; it’s actually composed of live database views that you can drill down into in many flexible ways online. And because Appian Records can transparently reference externally-held relational data within native data objects, and you can have your Appian system link key process variables to other relevant business information. This makes it easier for you to reference contextual data in performance charts and reports.

Appian’s process optimisation capabilities are some of the most compelling features in the offering, though they’re not often talked about. The main enablers here are the openness and flexibility of the process runtime environment and the analytics engine.

There are two particular features that stand out. Firstly, administrators (and anyone with the required privileges) can make deep, structural changes to running process instances ‘in flight’. Tasks can be added, removed, or linked in different ways; process variables can be added and changed; and expressions and rules can be changed. In-flight changes may be applied to individual processes or in-bulk to upgrade large sets of running processes to the latest version. Secondly, analytics reports can be invoked not only by administrators interactively, but can also be invoked programmatically from within process models – and the results can be saved in process variables, for presentation in task user interfaces or as source information for process control decisions. In this way, Appian’s analytics technology can be very flexibly plumbed-in to the runtime environment, to drive highly dynamic process optimisations.

It’s also straightforward in Appian’s BAM environment to view user and team-based views of performance. The ‘active’ nature of dashboards and reports makes it pretty straightforward for improvement professionals to explore historical process performance data to uncover problematic situations and highlight opportunities for improvement.

Change management

The Appian Platform offers a number of strong capabilities to help you deliver change quickly yet in a managed fashion.

An application definition can contain multiple process definitions, decision and expression definitions, simulation definitions, analytics configurations, portal configurations, and so on. All application artefacts are managed under version control facilities provided natively within the Appian server environment – and designers can easily work with historical versions of artefacts as well as current versions. The design environment can also help designers and developers track changes through artefact versions – the activity feed provided in the design environment helps you trace what’s been changed, when and by whom, and this helps with impact analysis; although analysing differences between process versions is a manual task. In deployment the runtime environment offers real flexibility and control in how process revisions are deployed, and makes it easy to deal with multiple parallel process versions.

All the main pieces of Appian configuration information are stored within a common metadata repository. This means that changing implementation configuration information doesn’t require you to hunt around obscure, distributed directories in server filesystems. Configuration information stores for the portal, document management, collaboration, analytics, design tool, event management, rule management and personalisation capabilities of the platform – as well as the core process and rules engines – can all be isolated from each other and stored (and scaled) separately.

In large multi-project programs, Appian provides some limited support for distribution and federation of project work across repositories. Each repository is a specific full instance of the Appian environment; applications developed in Appian are packaged, and packages can be migrated between repositories by using export/import features.

Using the products: support for different kinds of work

Facilities to support automated work

Although Appian doesn’t specifically promote its platform for use to implement automated (‘straight-through’) processes, many of the capabilities needed are present.

The ability to separate policy definitions from flow logic using well-defined business rules is key in all work types, but rules tend to play the most significant roles in automated work scenarios. The Appian Expression Language (or alternatively an add-on such as that provided by partner Princeton Blue) fits the bill well, because rules are very reusable and can not only reference process variables, but other environmental information and configuration metadata too.

Appian’s smart services architecture, together with its range of pre-built connectors and the abilities of the Appian Expression Language, provide a good starting point for any endpoint integration work you’ll want to do. What’s more Appian’s support for event-based processing means you can design flows that operate asynchronously and reactively in response to external events. Lastly, there’s the ability for more technical designers to define distributed transaction control over groups of ‘chained’ activities. There’s also good support for load balancing across multiple process servers and for clustered server environments.

Facilities to support transactional work

Another strong point of the Appian Platform in support of more demanding transactional work scenarios is your ability to specify dynamic behaviours that lead to process instances being restructured at runtime. You can also configure Appian’s analytics functionality so that information output can be fed directly to rules in a running system – making it possible for Appian applications to change their behaviour automatically in response to changing performance or business environments (for example automatically adjusting some process instances to use a set of ‘fast track’ tasks but only where it’s appropriate).

It’s straightforward in Appian’s BAM environment to view user and team-based views of performance. The ‘active’ nature of the dashboards and reports surfaced by the Process Analytics tool makes it pretty straightforward for improvement professionals to explore historical process performance data to uncover problematic situations and highlight opportunities for improvement.

There’s no out-of-the-box functionality that uses historical analysis data to drive ‘in-flow’ operational guidance to process participants in the Appian platform. However the data from Appian’s analytics engine can be accessed by rules and also in process execution (you can invoke process reports from within processes and save the results to process variables). This means it’s quite straightforward to build this kind of functionality yourself for key process activities where you want to guide participants based on past behaviours and outcomes in other situations.

Facilities to support exploratory work

Many of the core capabilities required to support exploratory work scenarios are now present in the Case Management Framework that Appian Platform customers can download. The Case Management Framework delivers pre-built Records and process functionality and components that help you build Appian applications supporting common types of case management scenario.

The foundation of support here comes partly from the inbuilt content and document management facilities provided with the Appian Platform; but at least as much through your ability to define event-driven and ad hoc activities as part of application behaviour. Together these mean that you can create applications that allow participants to shape their work around events as they unfold rather than following a strict set of pre-defined procedures. Process activities may be triggered or disabled based on a rule condition, timer event, or message event using standard BPMN event types; this allows activities to be enabled and disabled based on conditions other than traditional sequential process flow. Quick Tasks, which can be instigated directly from a process dashboard, are optional activities that may or may not be activated during the life of a process. These, too, can be either enabled or disabled/hidden when specific conditions, specified by rules, timers and events, are met.

Although there’s no explicit named ‘case’ artefact type in the platform that acts as a container for data, documents, tasks and process fragments, states and rules, Appian’s Records functionality does most of the job: you can quite easily specify complex business datatypes that can be used to persist and manage business data across multiple groups of linked tasks and processes – in effect implementing the concept of a case object. The dynamic nature of processes in the Appian environment also plays a key role here. Archiving of cases on completion is something you can set up with a little work; the same goes for the ability to link cases to other related (ongoing or closed) cases, and the ability to explore closed related cases as work unfolds.

By using Records in your applications, the ability to create reports and dashboards that provide performance insights at the ‘case’ level (aggregating insights across a set of related processes and tasks) – and segment that reporting based on information features of cases – is straightforward. But if you want the ability to take a completed process instance – as it unfolded, rather than as it might have been designed – and use that as the basis for a template for future instances, you’ll have to create that functionality yourself.

Reference information

Regional capabilities

Appian has local presences in the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. It works through partners to provide local presences in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Poland, Greece, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, South Africa, and India.

Industry capabilities

Appian has specialised sales and engineering teams providing services and content to US Federal Government agencies, as well as financial services and insurance, healthcare and pharmaceuticals industries. It’s developed some solutions for these sectors – for example, around purchasing and procurement, hiring, security clearance and grants management for Government agencies; customer onboarding and anti-money laundering for financial services, and so on – and these are licensed to customers on a paid basis (just as the core Appian Platform is).

Appian also works with partners to deliver industry solutions (see Partners below). Increasingly, industry-specific applications and components are promoted through the Appian App Market.

Partners

Appian has strong Federal Government consulting and systems integrator partnerships including Booz Allen Hamilton, Serco, SRA, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, Intellidyne and others. Appian’s industrial consulting and systems integrator partnerships include Accenture, KPMG, Cap Gemini, Cognizant, Wipro, Genpact, Mastek, Blue Slate, Princeton Blue and others. A list of Appian partners across all types is at http://www.appian.com/partners/find-partner/.

Appian also maintains partnerships with a range of companies that bundle the Appian Platform in their systems – including Persistent Systems, Oakbrook Solutions, psHEALTH, MedPlus, iTradeNetwork, Primatics Financial, Avineon and NRG.

Finally, Appian has recently inked technology marketing and sales partnerships with two companies that provide complementary capabilities around the Appian Platform: Blue Prism (Robotic Process Automation) and MuleSoft (integration platform).

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